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History, Early Settlements

feitorias, Portuguese islands, sugar fields, sugarcane cultivation, brazilwood

As they had done along the African coast, the Portuguese established trading posts, which they called feitorias (factories), along more than 1,600 km (more than 1,000 mi) of the South American coastline. Portuguese traders visited the factories with some frequency, primarily to load cargoes of a hard wood that produced a red dye known by its Latin name, brasile. Eventually, the land became identified on maps with the brazilwood it produced, and the Portuguese began to call their small colony Brazil.

At the same time, France was attempting to establish trading relationships along the coast. In 1530, to counter this French threat, the Portuguese crown sent an expedition to Brazil led by the nobleman Martim Afonso de Sousa. He founded the settlement of Sao Vicente (near present-day Santos) and introduced sugarcane cultivation, cattle raising, and an administrative presence in the colony. The king attempted to divide up 4,000 km (2,500 mi) of coastline into a dozen captaincies, giving control of these new territories to nobles. In exchange for developing and protecting their captaincies, these nobles, known as donatarios, received control over lands that were sometimes larger than Portugal itself. Many of the donatarios never even saw their land grants. Four of the captaincies were not settled, and just two—Sao Vicente in the south and Pernambuco in the north—experienced any initial success. The captaincies also failed to discourage the French, who continued raids against Portuguese shipping in the area.

In 1549 the king again attempted to establish centralized authority in the colony and sent out a larger and more ambitious expedition of some 1,200 colonists, soldiers, priests, and royal officials led by Tome de Sousa. He founded a permanent colonial capital on the coast of the captaincy of Bahia, calling the city Salvador (Portuguese for “the Savior”). Within two decades the sugarcane that the colonists had brought from the Portuguese islands off the coast of West Africa spread in the rich soils of the countryside around Salvador. As the demand for agricultural labor increased, conflict between Native Americans and colonists intensified. Plantation owners tried a number of methods to coerce the indigenous people to work in the sugar fields: forcing them into slavery, attempting to turn them into peasants who were obligated to work on the agricultural estates, and offering wages in exchange for labor. None of these attempts succeeded on a large scale.

The Native Americans found a staunch ally against the pressure from the colonists in the Roman Catholic Church, or more precisely, in the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Jesuit priests had arrived with Tome de Sousa in 1549, and they founded the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil. A new and very effective religious order, the Jesuits created the first schools in Brazil and sought to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. A group of priests, led by Manoel da Nobrega and Jose de Anchieta, eventually created a system of aldeias (villages) to Christianize the Native Americans. By the 1560s and 1570s the Jesuits had gathered thousands of indigenous people in dozens of aldeias.

In the 1560s disease, most likely smallpox, swept through the Native American villages, and large numbers of the indigenous people died. Given the Native Americans’ resistance to plantation work and their susceptibility to epidemics introduced by European settlers, the Portuguese colonists began to use African slave labor to satisfy their rapidly increasing labor needs.

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